As a worker in the coal mine and in various other organizational roles, I have come across a number of teasers. If you are familiar with my work or my writing, you will know that I like humor. However, there is a lot of teasing, which goes over that ambiguous line of appropriate humor.
One day in the mines, another miner came up to me and said, "Hey, go over to Jay and tease him about his brother who is taking ballet lessons." I replied that I wasn't interested. A few minutes later another miner again encouraged me to goad Jay about his brother's new hobby. I repeated my lack of desire to tease Jay. One at a time a couple more miners pressed me to confront Jay saying, "Everyone else is doing it." Finally, I yielded and walked over to Jay and said in a rather bashful way, "What's this I hear about your brother taking ballet lessons?" Jay turned to me with a solemn face and said, "My brother? My brother has polio." All the blood drained from my face and I felt sick to my stomach. Immediately, all my prompters came out from around various corners loudly laughing and pointing fingers at the true butt of the joke: Me! I turned to Jay and observed him also choked with laughter. I managed a laugh myself but felt bad. Today, I recall this story and it is funny to me. At the time, it didn't feel that way.
A few years later, I met the master teaser. Timmy knew the vulnerability of every miner with whom he worked and picked at his weaknesses like a fresh scab. Our supervisor, Bill, was of Polish descent. Every day Timmy would come in and tell him a new Pollock story as he called them. Each day Bill would get progressively more agitated. Finally, Bill exploded with a verbal barrage. The next day, we found out that Bill had quit his job and gone to another mine nearby. Afterwards, I asked Timmy, why he continued to irritate Bill. Timmy responded that if Bill wasn't tough enough to be a coal miner and couldn't take a joke, he had better get tough or get out of the coal mine. There are many more stories about Timmy. The only thing that slowed him down was lack of response.
I have seen many leaders in the midst of this same type of teasing. I often advise them against such behavior. Even when the teasing is obviously hurtful and uncomfortable for everyone, the teaser says, "Heck he would think I was mad at him if I didn't tease him."
Teasing is a kind of shaming or a control mechanism. Activity at work that embarrasses others whether peers or followers can have long term negative effects on your relationships. Think about the response that the subject of your teasing demonstrates. As the leader, if you want to use humor at work, make fun of yourself not followers who have less organizational power than you do. Be deliberate and respectful regarding the humor you use.
R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray's new book, "Tons of Stone above my head: Coal Mining Stories with Leadership Lessons," visit his Web site www.raycomlearning.com.
Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.